A cop who fights dinosaurs, mutants, and monsters with an axe. Accompanied by an Avocado Soldier (who takes on other identities from time to time), aided by a baby with a unicorn horn and other companions recruited through numerous "try-outs." It's the sort of genius only a kid could cook up, and "Axe Cop" has now charmed readers with its absurd over-the-top humor for more than a year. In December, Dark Horse released a collection of the webcomic sensation produced by 6-year-old Malachai Nicolle and his 30-year-old brother Ethan, and in March the the three-issue miniseries "Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth" begins, marking the mustachioed officer's greatest adventure to date. CBR News spoke with Ethan Nicolle about the new miniseries and the process of crafting an extended "Axe Cop" adventure.
In December, the Nicolle brothers held a release party and signing for the Dark Horse collection of their webcomic strips at Bridge City Comics in Portland, an event that proved an overwhelming success. "It was awesome. We sold out of books in the first hour and I think everyone who came had a great time," Ethan Nicolle said. "My whole family was there and Malachai had a blast. I wasn't sure how he would handle the whole signing situation, but he loved it. We signed books and posters for a straight hour and he had fun the whole time. We did a demonstration where we made up a character together on the spot, too."
Up to now, Axe Cop's adventures have been quite short -- generally a few pages -- suiting the webcomics format. But the three-issue "Bad Guy Earth" miniseries will be one epic romp. "It is new ground for 'Axe Cop' because it is one long three-part story. In the world of comics a three-issue miniseries is not a particularly long story, but the amount of ground Axe Cop covers in that amount of reading is pretty crazy," Nicolle said. "It is by far the most epic 'Axe Cop' tale ever told. When I created the first 'Axe Cop' stories, I was thinking these were a side project for fun, so they were short and drawn sloppily. 'Bad Guy Earth' has been my job. I spent a month with Malachai writing it in person. It was a big project and one of the most imagination-stretching projects I have ever taken on. I can't wait for people to see it."
"Bad Guy Earth" will, among other things, pit Axe Cop against "real" cops and the authority of President Towzerd. "As Malachai and I were putting together the 'Bad Guy Earth' story, I began to realize that this was not going to be a traditional hero's journey. Axe Cop would not be transforming or learning a lesson. He is more of a Christ figure. He stays the same and the world around him changes because of him," Nicolle said. "So the cops and the president represent this world that rejects Axe Cop but learns how badly they need him. The real cops are mad at him for breaking all the cop rules. The president is mad at him for fighting his soldiers when they try to stop him."
Asked who or what "Bad Guy Earth" refers to, Nicolle explained that this is the world we'll all live in if Axe Cop's nemeses get their way. "The main bad guys in the story are two brothers named 'the Psychic Brothers.' Their goal is to transform the entire earth into bad guy earth," the writer said. "They are by far the most formidable bad guys Axe Cop has ever faced because this is the first time Malachai wrote bad guys pretending to be a bad guy himself."
The legend of "Axe Cop" began just over a year ago, when Nicolle visited his family for Christmas. While playing with his brother Malachai, then 5, a heroic dinosaur-fighting Axe Cop emerged -- not entirely outlandish for a young boy's games, but the elder Nicolle sibling saw an opportunity to do a few one-page comics as something fun to do with his brother that they could show around to the family. When he posted those strips online, though, simply as practice for another planned webcomic, "Axe Cop" blew up into something the artist had never predicted. Future strips were coordinated via Skype calls and the phenomena continued to build, soon even incorporating reader questions into standalone comics. A longer project like "Bad Guy Earth," though, required a somewhat more organized approach.
"I went into 'Bad Guy Earth' with a little more foresight. I knew I was taking on a challenge, attempting to write a feature-length story with my 6-year-old brother. So I went up to spend a month with him," Nicolle said. "He is so advanced in school, my parents have no problem with letting him skip a day here and there to work on 'Axe Cop.' I tried all sorts of experiments, from acting out scenes with him or just playing with random toys. I took notes the whole time, then when I needed to connect the dots, I would ask him questions to fill in blanks. We would do days where we pretended to be bad guys and days where we would pretend to be good guys. It was quite a process, and I think that whenever we put out a trade I will try to document it as much as I can, because it was pretty interesting. I learned a lot."
While all of "Axe Cop's" story elements spring from Malachai's head and through play with his older brother, one of Ethan Nicolle's roles is to sort out the inevitable plot holes and other quandaries that arise from such a process. "When we would play, I would try to keep the themes of the plot involved as much as possible, but there was no way to keep it on track. So we would play and I would get all this material, then I would sort it all out to see what fit where. Once I did that, I would find things that didn't connect or unanswered questions, like, how did this character know about this, or where did this character get that weapon?" Nicolle explained. "I would usually write a list of five or so questions each day and try to get an answer. This usually lead to even more rabbit trails, but that's pretty much what 'Axe Cop' stories are -- tons of rabbit trails -- and I do my best to make them stay as close to the central plot as possible."
Nicolle's role of "Axe Cop" artist, then, encompasses quite a lot more than that credit usually entails. "The art is the easiest part of 'Axe Cop.' The real challenge is keeping Malachai interested and getting the whole story out of him before he abandons it and has moved onto something else," Nicolle said. "It takes a lot of bartering, playing, compromising. I don't think Dave Gibbons ever had to promise Alan Moore video game payoffs or get him excited to write by buying him random toys. Really, my job is to trick Malachai into writing.
"As for the challenge of the art, the biggest challenge is drawing whatever Malachai says. A good example in 'Bad Guy Earth' would be when Malachai sends Axe Cop to a world full of talking animals, but none of them are animals that ever existed on Earth, so I have to make up a brand new Animal Kingdom."
Asked about the potential for "Axe Cop" to cross over with other comic book heroes, Nicolle said he'd love to see it but there are no plans at present. "Chris Hastings and I have talked about doing another 'Dr. McNinja' crossover since we are both on Dark Horse now, but there has been nothing for sure planned. I would love to see Axe Cop cross over with some mainstream super heroes, or even just see Malachai do a Spider-Man or Batman story. So far none are planned, but I think Axe Cop is a great character for crossovers."
Before "Axe Cop," Nicolle had already achieved acclaim with the Eisner-nominated "Chumble Spuzz" from Slave Labor Graphics. The situation with "Axe Cop," of course, is totally different. CBR News asked the artist whether the "Axe Cop" experience has changed how he thinks about his own work and the types of stories he'd like to be working on. "Well, it has definitely given me a much bigger name in the industry, which is a huge bonus. I still plan to get the comic done that 'Axe Cop' interrupted, titled 'Bearmageddon.' Other than that, I'm still trying to continue working on TV series pitches and I am wanting do some all ages material. I think that the 'Axe Cop' process has given me a lot of insight into the mind of kids and I would like to try to do a children's series. I will probably split my time between 'Axe Cop' and 'Bearmageddon' in the new year, which will take pressure off of Malachai and me to produce so much. However, I will continue to write with Malachai and document our stories so that I have plenty of material on backup whenever he outgrows 'Axe Cop.' I'd like to try to do another story like 'Bad Guy Earth' with him, too, but we will have to see what happens. Like most artists, I have a zillion projects I want to work on, but I have to take them one or two at a time."
Though the success of "Axe Cop" put "Bearmageddon" on hold for the duration of 2010, the popularity of the Nicolle brothers' collaboration has allowed Ethan to go full-time with his cartooning. "It literally became my job overnight," he said of the webcomic. "A month before 'Axe Cop' took over my life, I had two jobs, but they both laid me off in the same week and I was struggling financially. Even though I was not making an amazing living on 'Axe Cop,' I was pretty broke at the time. So if I was going to be living on very little, I would rather be doing 'Axe Cop' than the mundane Flash animation jobs I was doing to scrape by. This is my first year of my life where I drew comics the whole time for pay. I loved it."
As to how the rest of the family views the "Axe Cop" phenomenon and the brothers' sudden fame, Nicolle said, "I think they are very proud. We all have the same apprehension and caution about it in terms Malachai's innocence, but in general, it has been a huge joy for all of us. It's afforded me the opportunity to spend a lot more time with the family and it's given Malachai and me a reason to interact constantly over the year. It's been quite a blessing."